HB 464 could clear a path to universal school voucher program; hearing scheduled for 4/25

The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to host a public hearing for two school voucher expansion bills on Tuesday, April 25, including a bill that could establish a universal school voucher program in New Hampshire. 

The committee’s schedule includes public hearings on two voucher expansion bills:

  • HB 367 (9:00 a.m.), which increases the income eligibility threshold to 350% of the Federal Poverty Guideline, which is about $105,000 per year for a family of four; and, 
  • HB 464 (9:30 a.m.), which would create universal eligibility for certain subgroups of students, including those who are within the “geographic boundary” of a school that has been designated as in need of improvement. 

The language of HB 464 is vague and confusing and could lead to a universal program where all students, regardless of income, could receive a taxpayer-funded school voucher. 

The Committee will also hold a hearing for HB 446 on Tuesday, April 25, at (9:15 am), which would require the school voucher contractor to provide families with a written explanation of the rights and services that they would lose by enrolling in the statewide school voucher program. 

About House Bill 464

HB 464 would create universal eligibility for any student who falls within certain eligibility categories, including: 

  • A student who lives within the “geographic boundaries” of a school that has been designated as a school in need of improvement (designated as a Comprehensive Support and Improvement School)
  • A student who lives within the “geographical jurisdiction” of a school that has been designated as a “persistently dangerous” school (note that there are, and have never been, any schools in NH with this designation)
  • Who is a child with a disability
  • A student who is eligible for a free or reduced price meal. 

There are contradictions in the proposed eligibility categories. For example, students who are eligible for a free or reduced price meal already qualify for the school voucher program because the existing income limit is higher than the income limit for school meals. Additionally, there are, and never have been, any schools that have been designated as “persistently dangerous” according to the NH Department of Education. 

Ambiguity in HB 464 and a road to universal school vouchers

Under HB 464, a student “who lives within the geographic boundaries of a school which has been identified as a comprehensive support and improvement school” would be eligible to enroll in the school voucher program. But there is no definition in HB 464 or in existing state law or administrative rules for “geographic boundaries,” which could lead to ambiguity and interpretation in the related category.

There are eight charter schools in New Hampshire that have been identified as comprehensive support and improvement schools, including VLACS, the state’s virtual charter school. 

Since charter schools must accept students from any school district under state law, it could be interpreted that all school-aged youth in New Hampshire live in a “geographic boundary” of a designated school. 

Here’s the full text of RSA 194-B:2, IV: 

“All chartered public schools shall accept qualified pupils from any school district. A pupil who meets the admission requirements of a chartered public school, and who is a resident of the district where the school is located, shall be given absolute admission preference over a nonresident pupil. Once admitted and unless expelled, chartered public school pupils need not reapply for admission for subsequent years.”

A universal school voucher program could have devastating effects on public schools and other state programs

If New Hampshire were to implement a universal school voucher program, it could have devastating effects on public district schools and public charter schools, as well as other programs funded by the state. In addition, by opening eligibility to all students regardless of family income, the state would be supporting wealthy families, leaving less state money for other state priorities. 

In the 2022-2023 school year, 16,119 students attended a private school. If all of those students enrolled in the school voucher program, the program would cost nearly $62 million per year in new state spending, even before accounting for the additional aid categories. 

About school vouchers in New Hampshire

New Hampshire’s school voucher program, also known as Education Freedom Accounts, EFAs, or Education Savings Accounts, are personal accounts that can be used to pay for certain education-related expenses, including private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, tutoring, books and materials, and transportation. Eligible families receive the base amount of state funding per student plus any additional aid for which their student qualifies (eligibility for school meals, special education services, English Language Learner program, or the third grade reading aid). When participating in the program, families agree not to enroll their child full-time into their resident district school or public charter school; however, families may enroll their children into public and charter schools part-time, depending on the policies of the school.

Currently, students are eligible if they are eligible to enroll in a New Hampshire public school and meet the income eligibility guidelines at the time of application, which is 300% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines as updated annually by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Students only need to qualify in the first year of the program, and do not need to meet the income eligibility guidelines in subsequent years. 

Independent studies have suggested that outcomes for participation in similar school voucher programs are, at best, mixed, but more recent studies have suggested that these programs have had significant negative effects on student outcomes for the students who participate in them and have diverted funding from public schools. 

The taxpayer-funded accounts have cost the state roughly $24 million in state funds since the program began enrolling students in August 2021. Most of the funds are going to families who have already enrolled their students in private schools or homeschools, even before applying for a voucher.

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